As economic woes linger, ex-cons struggle to find work, second-chance
By Mary Kate Knorr For the Herald-News September 18, 2012 3:57PM
Georgina Walker, an ex-convict, speaks about her life while in her apartment in Joliet, IL on Thursday July 6, 2012. She has struggled to find work since she was released from jail. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media .
Updated: October 20, 2012 6:01AM
Georgina Walker has seen enough of the inside of a prison cell to know she never wants to return to jail — yet more than one year after being released from prison, Walker is unemployed, struggling to make ends meet and rapidly returning to the point of desperation that drove her to turn to crime two years ago.
“I try to get looking for jobs and everything’s hard on me,” said Walker. “How am I going to provide for myself and for my kids?”
A single mother of three, Walker lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the 1600 block of Elgin Avenue. She borrows one friend’s cell phone when she needs to make phone calls and gives another gas money to drive her to and from job interviews. Her apartment has no air conditioning, so in the midst of this summer’s record-high temperatures, she made do with fans and open windows.
“I can’t pay my rent, bills are piling up. The landlord is giving me eviction notices,” said Walker. “What can I do? I try to work. What can I do?”
Education is key
Walker was convicted of retail theft, a misdemeanor, in 2010. Because of her record, which includes a felony, she was sent back to jail for the third time since 1998.
In January of 2011, after serving time at the Will County Jail and Dwight Correctional Center, Walker was sent to Fox Valley Adult Transition Center, which provides opportunities for prisoners to prepare for their re-entrance into the community through job training programs.
In addition to trade education, the center also offers educational programs such as ABE classes, GED classes, and local college classes.
“If you don’t have some kind of continued education, how can you expect to have sustainable employment?” said Michael Sweig, a former Chicago attorney. “It’s like driving a car with no steering wheel if those people are not being required to get an education ... and the joke is on the people with the felony conviction.”
Sweig devoted his career to advising the formerly incarcerated and lobbying for legislation regarding criminals’ rights after he was convicted of a felony in the 1990s. Most recently, he pushed for legislation that would allow ex-felons to appear before a judge and prove rehabiliation for the sake of receiving licensing for professional careers.
“A lot of the people in the criminal justice system, it’s their career,”said Sweig. “One thing that everyone who has a felony conviction should do to enhance their job prospects is enroll in school, because then you can show an employer, ‘Look, I’m really trying.’”
‘It’s not right’
Agape Missions, a Joliet-based organization that aids the formerly incarcerated in re-entering the community, recognizes the importance of education as well.
“Some people don’t even have a GED,” said Jill Skole, executive director of Agape Missions. “If you want to flip a burger, you need a GED.”
But for Walker, who has her CNA and also completed a job partnership program while at the Fox Valley Adult Transition Center, education has not been enough.
“It’s just so hard for people with a background,” said Walker. “How can I keep moving forward?”
After being released, Walker was employed for one month before losing her job. Now, she accepts temporary work between job interviews, but fears repeating past mistakes.
“You can’t imagine the things I see and the things you go through (in jail). Me? I don’t want to go through it anymore. It’s not right,” said Walker. “But (unemployment) keeps us going back out there, doing negative things.”
Roger Logue, the executive director of a Joliet employment agency for ex-prisoners, said her situation is not unique.
“Seventy percent of the people who get jobs stay out (of jail),” said Logue. “Seventy percent of the people that don’t get jobs usually go back.”
According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, between 32 percent and 35 percent of parolees were employed each month of the last year. Some 27.3 percent of parolees return to jail within one year of their initial release from prison and 42 percent of parolees return to jail within three years.
“Some people in prison tell the rest of us, ‘You’ll be back,’” said Walker. “They’re just waiting for us to come back.”
Fox Valley Adult Transition Center deals directly with Prison Release Ministry, a not-for-profit employment agency for the formerly incarcerated, to help them find employment. Logue, executive director of the organization, said the responsibility to becoming employed, however, really lies with the individual.
“You have to work harder than anyone else in the world to get you a job,” said Logue. “You need to go to 20, 30 places every day. A lot of people complain they can’t find a job but how many places have they actually gone? It’s not an easy game to play.”
In the 36 years Prison Release Ministry has been in business, it has successfully helped 15,000 people find employment. Last year, of the 239 people that visited the facility, 197 found a job.
“You have to really be dedicated and you have to go out and you have to ask a lot of employers,” said Logue, who is also an ex-felon. “When you talk to them, you want to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m reliable and I’m dependable.’”
Because employers are often leery about hiring anyone with a criminal record, Logue encourages local business owners to hire ex-offenders for the sake of receiving tax credits.
But they can’t anymore, said Illinois Department of Employment spokesman Greg Rivara.
“There are some tax incentives that have recently expired at the federal level that would encourage businesses to hire the formerly incarcerated,” said Rivara. “The department still continues to certify employers for that tax credit in the hope that Congress will reauthorize it.”
Specifically, he referred to the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which is “a federal tax credit incentive that Congress provides to employers for hiring individuals from certain target groups who have consistently faced significant barriers to employment,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s website. Such “target groups” include the formerly incarcerated, those needing food assistance, and veterans. The credit expired on Dec. 31, 2011, and was recently renewed for veterans.
Other groups, said Rivara, are yet to be reauthorized.
“We administer the program on the behalf of the federal government so we continue to encourage businesses to pursue WOTC in the hopes that federal government will renew WOTC for the formerly incarcerated,” said Rivara.
‘We can’t get a break’
In the meantime, the burden to find employment during these sour economic times feels even heavier for those with a criminal record.
“You come out and get dressed up and bring your resume and you fill out applications. You get to that box, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ ” said Walker. “We did our time ... But we can’t get a break out here.”
A break is exactly what Agape Missions attempts to offer, Skole said.
Agape Missions was founded on HIV and AIDS prevention, but today, prisoners are often sent to Agape Missions by their parole officers for counseling or other treatments.
“We enter them into our management system and take care of their parole provisions, which is basically substance abuse services ... or if they need anger management, or they might need mental health services,” said Skole. “Those are usually the main things.”
Considered to be a “one-stop shop,” Agape Missions acts as a resource for ex-convicts for everything from counseling to employment to documentation and housing.
“We help with identification, we try to get them birth certificates, update their Social Security cards,” said Skole. “We have a re-entry advisory board for ex-offenders so we can talk about jobs and employment, things that they know that they need.”
Skole said, above all else, Agape Missions aims to show the formerly incarcerated their situations are not hopeless.
“We tell them, ‘We’re here to actually help and offer other services to you,’ ” said Skole. “What we’re all about is leading and guiding people and showing them the alternatives they have.”
Looking for a shot
In the meantime, the same obstacles still loom.
But Walker believes a second chance might make her life much easier.
“I’m just trying to find someone out there who’ll give me a chance to clock in and clock out,” said Walker.
“If I was just given another chance, my life would be a hell of a lot better.”